Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2011
Keith Christiansen Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2009. 62 pp.; 52 color ills.; 3 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (9780300145441)

In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought, for an undisclosed sum that was reported to be more than $45 million, a small panel painting—the so-called Stoclet, or Stroganoff, Madonna—that was widely assumed to have been the last work by Duccio in private hands. Four years later, after a rigorous investigation of the panel, Keith Christiansen, the museum’s curator of European paintings, published an extended essay on the work in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Subsequently, Christiansen’s article was republished as this slender, generously illustrated book.

In a way, Christiansen’s book is rather like the painting that is his subject: modest in scale but hardly unambitious. The essay that forms the book’s core (there is also a foreword, on the acquisition of the piece, and an appendix, on the Stroganoff collection) is at once a consideration of the painting’s place in Duccio’s career, a meditation on the work’s emotional tone, an argument for the importance of Duccio in the history of Italian painting—and, perhaps, a kind of apologia for the Met’s purchase. Like any good Trecento painter, in other words, Christiansen is simultaneously alert to the force of tradition, to the abstract appeal of his subject, to the potential value of novelty, and to the expectations of his patrons. For this reader, however, the strongest appeal of Christiansen’s text ultimately lies in a very different direction. Much as Duccio’s panel offers a revealing glimpse into painting techniques and practices that were once entirely common, Christiansen’s essay offers a chance to think seriously about the venerable art of connoisseurship.

First things, however, first. The story of the work’s purchase is a fascinating one, involving a pizza lunch that grew into a multi-million-dollar sale, an exceptional transatlantic flight, and secretive negotiations. Admittedly, it has been told before (most notably by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, in 2005). Nevertheless, Christiansen’s foreword, in which he describes the two hours that he, Philippe de Montebello, and Dorothy Mahon spent with the work in a Christie’s showroom before making an offer, is riveting. Like John Marciari’s account, in a recent issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, of his realization that a painting in the basement of the Yale Art Gallery was possibly an early Velázquez, Christiansen’s story has a cinematic force in its lean combination of accrued expertise and improbable opportunity. Duccio’s panel, after all, had only been reproduced in color for the first time in 2003—and suddenly, a mere year later, the Met’s representatives were studying it, in person, as a possible purchase. Such narratives offer an art-historical equivalent of Keats’s sense of discovery on reading Chapman’s Homer: “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

New? Really? Admittedly, the Met’s panel had been shown before 2004—but only twice, and never since 1930. As a result, the work was relatively unknown. And yet, contends Christiansen, it holds a “special place” in Duccio’s oeuvre, due in large part to its inclusion of a small parapet in the foreground. Arguing that the panel should be dated to the 1290s, Christiansen makes a grand claim regarding the parapet and the attitude toward space that it implies. “In this little picture,” he writes, “Duccio explored, evidently for the first time, what was to become the imaginative realm of Renaissance painting” (52). Christiansen presents Duccio, in part, as a pioneer in the depiction of space.

Such an accomplishment would seem to cement Duccio’s place in history—if history had only recorded his accomplishments with any precision. Instead, Duccio’s career was misreported and marginalized by Vasari, who wrongly assigned his Rucellai Madonna to Cimabue and cast him as a younger contemporary of the very artists whose work he partly inspired. For Christiansen, such a misunderstanding has considerable consequences. If we overlook Duccio, he writes, we overlook a critical figure in the history of European art. “It is not possible,” we read, “to tell the story of fourteenth-century Italian art, and thus of the beginnings of Western painting, without Duccio” (3).

At such moments, Christiansen’s prose verges on the evangelical, but it is hard to avoid the sense that he is preaching to the staunchly converted. Certainly, Vasari’s account is riddled with errors, but in recent years dozens of writings, and probably hundreds of survey courses, have granted Duccio a very privileged position. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if anyone has tried to tell the story of fourteenth-century Italian art without invoking Duccio’s name since, say, 1979, when John White wrote that “there can be no reasonable doubt that Duccio is one of that small band of painters who have radically changed the course of history” (John White, Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop, London: Thames and Hudson, 1979, 9). Given, then, the lack of a real need for a defense of Duccio’s importance, Christiansen’s assertions make the most sense if read as a claim regarding the Met’s collection, rather than Duccio. That is, in becoming one of a mere handful of U.S. museums able to show a Duccio, the museum is now implicitly able to tell the full story of art.

Of course, a contrarian museumgoer might argue that there is no single story of art. Or she or he might point out that Christiansen, while claiming to correct Vasari’s oversights, still retains that writer’s underlying interest in a narrative organized around innovations that facilitate increasing degrees of spatial illusionism and psychological realism. In more charitable moments, though, she or he might also note that Christiansen’s essay fluidly draws on a range of academic insights and approaches, offering a concise and varied view of Duccio in the process. He draws gracefully on Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) in discussing the use of azurite in the Virgin’s robe, and on the 2007 examination of a panel at the Frick, in considering Duccio’s working methods (25 and 52–3). The ideas of others are thus invoked in an easy, readable manner.

In recording his own thoughts on the image, however, Christiansen is rather less successful. A few attempts at analogy—with Duchamp; with Matisse—are mildly provocative, but prompt as many questions as they resolve. More striking, though, is Christiansen’s descriptive prose, which tends toward the romantic, the clichéd, and, finally, the repetitious. Christiansen, it seems, is a connoisseur at heart; he is perhaps most at home discussing the moods of works, the quality of impressions that they produce, and the artist’s tendencies. Now, there is nothing wrong with connoisseurship in the abstract; and its application here, in relation to a piece whose exact origins are unknown, is fully reasonable. Moreover, connoisseurs can be wonderful writers: think of Giovanni Morelli. But although Christiansen is aware of the pitfalls of poor language—at one point, he gently chides Bernard Berenson’s “somewhat dated aesthetic categories” (40)—he seems unable to resist the temptation of nebulous terms such as lyrical, mesmerizing, miraculous, and ravishing. The Virgin’s melancholy is haunting—as are, elsewhere, Duccio’s gift for suggesting presence, and a panel by Simone Martini.

Let’s forgive the repetitions. But what, really, do such descriptive terms mean? A Marxist might call them mystifying; a literalist would likely note that they do not actually seem to mean what they imply. That is, I am struck, in reviewing the adjectives that turn up most frequently in this book, by the way in which several of them involve an aspect of persistence or unforgettability. In addition to calling Duccio’s work haunting and mesmerizing, Christiansen writes that the panels of the Maestà in Siena “leave an indelible impression,” and that the Met panel “impresses itself upon our imagination” (7 and 55). We have all encountered claims like this before—and yet, in this case at least, they seem more wishful than true. After all, Agnolo di Tura’s celebrated Trecento account of the procession of the Maestà through Siena’s streets actually misidentified the subject of the vast panel’s reverse side. Agnolo, a resident of Siena, surely knew Duccio’s painting well—and yet evidently did not find it indelible.

Perhaps Duccio’s aura has yielded a modern unforgettability. Perhaps. Ultimately, though, assertions of indelibility and hauntingness seem to me to work on abstract, rather than literal, levels. On one level, they are rough signifiers of elusive concepts such as aesthetic value, or quality. On another level, though, they can perhaps be seen as the outcome of a basic nervousness regarding the prominent role of memory in the life of the connoisseur. Most connoisseurs have presumably heard of the mortifying moment in Berenson’s testimony in a suit involving an alleged Leonardo in which the connoisseur could not recall the medium in which the work was executed. With that story in mind, Christiansen’s repeated assertions that Duccio’s work impresses itself upon us feel as much like a reassurance as an observation.

Ultimately, then, I will remember this book as reassuring, above all: as reassuring us of the validity of Duccio’s place in art history, of the merit of the Met’s vast investment, and of the validity of connoisseurship as a tool. And, like anyone reassured, I am partly pleased—but also curious about what prompted the need for such a glossy reassurance.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art

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